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VOL. 133 | NO. 181 | Wednesday, September 12, 2018

In a Name, Piggly Wiggly Retains ‘First’ Moniker

Special to The Daily News

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The Piggly Wiggly Corp. headquarters on Front Street in Downtown Memphis was built in 1915. (Photograph Courtesy of The Nashoba Group)

Piggly Wiggly’s ceremonial grand opening was Sept. 6, 1916, but the real, construction-delayed opening did not happen until 102 years ago today, Sept. 11, for the nation’s first supermarket.

Or was it?

Clarence Saunders’ innovation at 79 Jefferson – the first self-service grocery – has long been heralded with Kemmons Wilson’s Holiday Inn and Fred Smith’s FedEx as the titanic business inventions coming out of Memphis.

“When Piggly Wiggly opened its doors in Memphis, Tennessee on September 6, 1916, it was the first truly modern American supermarket,’’ states a 2017 Southern Living story.

A Time magazine story noted the grocery’s centennial in 2016, writing, “… Piggly Wiggly, the first modern American supermarket, opened 100 years ago.’’

Saunders’ big idea was placing the groceries on open shelves, giving customers a basket and letting them select the food products instead of giving a grocery list to a clerk.

But there’s a Long Island, New York, chain of nearly 35 grocery stores named King Kullen that uses this tag line under its name:

“America’s First Supermarket.’’

Michael Cullen opened the first King Kullen in August 1930 in Queens, New York. King Kullen not only let customers shop for themselves, it was much bigger than normal and stocked greater volumes of products which enabled lower prices.

“Some contention still surrounds whether Kullen or Saunders founded the first supermarket, but the opening dates suggest Piggly Wiggly was, in fact, the original,’’ the 2016 Time story states.

Score one for the Pig.

But King Kullen makes its claim based on the definition of “supermarket,’’ and cites a weighty source.

“The Smithsonian Institute acknowledges King Kullen as America’s first supermarket, as it was ‘the first to fulfill all five criteria that define the modern supermarket: Separate departments; self-service; discount pricing; chain marketing; and volume dealing’,’’ states material on the King Kullen website, kingkullen.com.

The Memphis Daily News on Monday contacted the Smithsonian to ask if King Kullen’s claim is true.

“The Smithsonian reference was made by a staffer many years ago – he passed away and we do not have his notes,’’ Valeska Hilbig, spokeswoman for Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, responded by email.

“… Much depends on the definition of ‘supermarket’,’’ she wrote. “A quick search in Andrew F. Smith’s ‘The Oxford Companion to Food and Drink in America’ reveals that Piggly Wiggly was the first self-service grocery store in America, opening on September 6, 1916, on Jefferson Street in Memphis.’’

But Smithsonian’s Hilbig cited a passage from the book that complicates matters, bringing California into the fray.

“The term ‘super market’ originated in southern California during the 1920s. Two chains – Ralph’s Grocery Company and Alpha Beta Food Markets – constructed stores that covered five thousand square feet – ten times the size of traditional grocery stores,’’ the Oxford Companion reference states. “The California model spread throughout the nation. In 1930 Michael Cullen launched King Kullen in Jamaica, New York. Cullen profited by reducing prices and increasing volume …’’

Memphis historian Wayne Dowdy provided clarity.

“Piggly Wiggly was the first self-service grocery chain and from Saunders’ patented system eventually grew the modern supermarket,’’ said Dowdy, the Memphis Public Library’s History Department manager and the author of six books including “On this Day in Memphis History.’’

“I’m not aware of him ever using that term but I wonder if this other chain could have created a supermarket without Clarence Saunders and Piggly Wiggly,’’ Dowdy said.

PROPERTY SALES 100 375 3,773
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BUILDING PERMITS 392 651 8,607
BANKRUPTCIES 38 117 2,021